Bay Area muralist Juana Alicia Araiza discusses her work, social justice and accessibility

A woman smiles and poses.
Raymond Holbert/Courtesy

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Juana Alicia Araiza’s achievements would inspire envy among any aspiring artist. She’s a muralist, printmaker, painter, activist and educator whose pieces can be seen across the Bay Area as well as in areas including Nicaragua and Mexico. Yet Araiza, who emphasizes art’s ability to strengthen community and incite change, would be the first to admit that she couldn’t have done it all by herself.

“This society particularly, in the United States, really isolates people and makes people feel that the individual is the most important unit of survival,” Araiza said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “And it’s really important to me to have all of my comadres and compadres … that understand what I’m doing or at least attempt to understand what I’m doing.”

This cooperation has always been a cornerstone of Araiza’s methodology.

“(My art) sort of contradicts the notion of the artist as this isolated genius in an ivory tower,” she explained. “(It) is a process of ancestral wealth, community learning, collaboration (and) the personal and social developments that happen when people work together for a positive end.”

For Araiza, who has made activism her priority from a young age, that “positive end” has taken many different forms throughout her career. Araiza spent her formative years in Detroit, surrounded by the burgeoning Black Power movement, and would later go on to protest the Vietnam War and be recruited by Cesar Chavez to work with the United Farm Workers, or UFW, an experience she credits with teaching her about art’s ability to spark change — an idea that has remained the focal point of Araiza’s art ever since.

“All of those things (were) very important to see … often the role of art in organizing. From the Teatro Campesino … to making posters for the farm workers, to the flourishing Chicano arts movements that came up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and continue to flower (in) different forms.”

Araiza says of her work with the UFW: “It changed my whole life.”

Araiza would go on to incorporate her experience with the farm workers into one of her most famous pieces, “Las Lechugueras,” a 1983 mural on the corner of San Francisco’s York and 24th streets that has since been replaced by another work by Araiza herself because of lack of funds for restoration. Of “Las Lechugueras,” Araiza says, “That was a heavily autobiographical piece about the experiences, the pesticides. … It was also an homage to the people that bring the food to our tables. So that was sort of a direct response to the UFW and farm worker world.”

A mural on the side of a buildings depicts agriculture labor.

LAS LECHUGUERAS (The Women Lettuce Workers), 30″ x 50″, Politec acrylic paint, ©1983. Photo: Tim Drescher.

According to Araiza, all of her pieces are constructed in this way: “Every piece, for me, anyway, comes out of some kind of impactful social experience, whether that’s relationships with particular people or movements.”

Now, more than 30 years after “Las Lechugueras,” the basis of many of Araiza’s works is a different topic.

“My focus since 2004 has been heavily on water. Water issues and the importance of protecting water, of its direct relationship to the climate crisis we’re living … and how these crises directly impact … people of color and women. All of those are sort of central concerns for me at this point.”

Ideas of social justice are not only a feature of Araiza’s pieces but figure heavily into how they are distributed; Araiza works primarily in murals and other forms of public art largely because these formats are accessible.

“(Murals) allow me to make my work a lot more public. So people don’t have to pay to purchase the work to go see it, they don’t have to pay to go to a museum, they don’t have to go to a gallery,” she said. “Many people who wouldn’t normally attend a museum or gallery get to see the artwork on the street or in public institutions. So it gives a lot more people access to the work … and I speak to a wider audience.”

Moreover, Araiza is optimistic about the growth of such public art versus the less accessible “discrete art” often shown in museums.

“You know, street art has come into its own in a lot of ways in the world. And that’s not to say that there isn’t an exclusive, elitist, art market that rules the art world. There is,” she said. “But there’s also other movements and other tendencies among many different kinds of people to create more public art.”

And, when considering the robust nature of Araiza’s portfolio, one cannot help but hope fervently that she’s correct about a potential rise in the kind of accessible, socially impactful art that she produces. The world would be all the better for it.

Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected].